University Archives and Area Research Center

Brief History of Pierce County, Wisconsin

Native Americans were the first people to live in what is now Pierce County. The Diamond Bluff area has many extensive burial mounds that mark the Native American settlement. French explorers began coming to the area in the mid-to-late 1600s, including Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut—for whom Duluth, Minnesota, is named. He was one of the first to investigate the area, traveling down the Saint Croix River in 1680 past the future site of Prescott. American explorer Zebulon Pike camped on that same Prescott site in in 1805.

Philander Prescott first passed by the area that would be named for him in 1819 on his way to Fort Snelling. In 1839 Prescott returned to the area and settled on land near the junction of the Mississippi and Saint Croix rivers. At one time the area went by the name of Elizabeth, but soon afterward the name was changed to Prescott.

In 1840, Saint Croix County was formed, covering a vast portion of northwest Wisconsin Territory. The state legislature split up Saint Croix County into Pierce, Polk, and Saint Croix counties in 1853. Pierce County was named after Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth president of the United States.

In 1848, Joel Foster settled in the area that would become River Falls, and other settlers began arriving in 1849, including Nathaniel and Oliver Powell. By 1854, the Powell brothers had established the Pioneer Store and on April 6th of that year they entered a plat for the "Village of Kinnickinnic." Also in 1854, Joel Foster built the first sawmill in the settlement. The first flour mill was built in 1855 by C. B. Cox. The River Falls area was known early on for its wheat production and at the height of the flour milling business, River Falls had four flour mills.

In 1856, George Pratt entered a plat for the area just south of  the Village of Kinnickinnic and called it "Greenwood Falls." In 1858 a post office was established, which was called "River Falls." Confusion reigned as all three names were used: the post office of River Falls, located in the Village of Kinnickinnic, in the township of Greenwood. The county board finally ended the controversy in 1858 when a meeting was held and the unincorporated village was named "River Falls." The surrounding township also became River Falls.

At the time when Pierce County was developed, Prescott and River Falls were the largest communities in the county. A rivalry developed between Prescott and River Falls for the county seat. In the spring of 1861, after much debate, the exact location of the county seat was determined by drawing lines on a map of Pierce County to determine the center of the county. The lines crossed in the township of Perry, but the name of the new county seat was changed to Ellsworth because there was already a Perry, Wisconsin, in Dane County. Ellsworth was named for Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth—the first Union officer killed in the Civil War—after he tore down a Confederate flag in Arlington, Virginia.

Anthony Huddleston and his family had settled on the land near what would become Ellsworth in 1855, feeling it held great opportunity. He is credited with being the founding father of Ellsworth. The first school was built in 1857, and the first post office, store, and hotel in 1860. Ellsworth was platted in 1862. The basement of the Crippin Hotel held the county offices until a town hall was constructed in 1862 and then a stone building for county purposes was built in 1864.

In 1874, River Falls had the good fortune to have the state's fourth Normal School. Classes began in the fall of 1875 at the River Falls Normal School, which today is known as the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. River Falls is also home to a campus of the Chippewa Valley Technical College. Go to a history of UW-River Falls.

By the 1880s, Ellsworth was growing and the people of the village were looking forward to a railroad connection to be built by the Omaha Railway. The railway was completed in 1885 but due to hilly terrain, the railroad was actually situated on the flatter outskirts of Ellsworth. This area then became known as East Ellsworth. Soon after, various businesses, such as the Ellsworth Starch Factory, were constructed in the area because they wanted to be near the railroad. Ellsworth's industry continued to grow after the turn of the century. As an example, the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery was built, producing high quality cheese and butter. Schools and other municipal buildings such as the Pierce County Courthouse, the construction of which was begun in 1905, continues to serve the county today in that capacity.

The eastern part of Pierce County was know initially for logging and mining. The Eau Galle Company began logging along the rive near what was to become Spring Valley in 1857. The first settler was James Gilmore, who arrived in 1859, and the first settler with a family, Ole Gardiner/Gaarder, came in 1861. The Wilcox brothers, Alfred and George, and John Francisco all came in 1863. By 1867 there were enough children to build a school. A post office came in 1870 and the first mill in 1874. In the mid-1870s, high quality iron ore was discovered and by the early 1890s Spring Valley had become a boom town. Spring Valley would be known later on for the infamous flood that devastated the city in 1942. The city rebuilt though and today is the home a large dam to prevent such a re-occurrence. The city is also home to Crystal Cave, a popular tourist attraction for the area.

Compiled by Elizabeth Heard and ARC staff in 2005; updated by ARC staff in 2011.



Ellsworth, 1862-1962: Historical Album and Program Book, [organized and edited by Stanley E. Doolittle] ([Ellsworth, Wis.: Ellsworth Centennial Committee], 1962): UWRF ARC F 589 .E44 E4.

History of Pierce County, Wisconsin: For Use in the Pierce County Common Schools, by authority of Mark L. Saxton (Spring Valley, Wis.: Spring Valley Publishing Co., 1937): UWRF ARC F 587 .P6 H5

A History of Prescott, Wisconsin: A River City and Farming Community on the St. Croix and Mississippi, by Dorothy Eaton Ahlgren and Mary Cotter Beeler ([Prescott, Wis.]: Prescott Area Historical Society, 1996): UWRF ARC F 589 .P84 A47 1996.

A History of River Falls, Wisconsin, 1848-1885, by Gene Edward Schoenick, (M.A. thesis, University of Minnesota, 1967): UWRF ARC F 589 .R62 S36 1967.

Pierce County's Heritage, [edited by Ursula Peterson], Vol. 1 (River Falls, Wis.: Pierce County Historical Society, 1971): UWRF ARC F 587 .P6 P5 vol. 1.

Spring Valley: The Early Years, by Doug Blegen (Spring Valley, Wis.: Blegen Books, 1995): UWRF ARC F 589 .S75 B57 1995.

 Prescott Main Street
Prescott's Main Street ca. 1905
River Falls Main Street
River Falls' Main Street ca. 1880

South Hall ca. 1875
Normal School's South Hall ca. 1875
Ellsworth Train Depot
Ellsworth Train Depot, 1880s
Pierce County Courthouse in Ellsworth
Pierce County Courthouse
Spring Valley Main Street
Spring Valley's Main Street

History of River Falls
(PowerPoint presentation)

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